Stigma of addiction hit college women harder and may prevent students from entering recovery

By Kassidy Tarala

Those who struggle with addiction can face strong stigma. But in college, that stigma can be downright confusing.

“Students who don’t drink for whatever reason are stigmatized for not drinking, said Amy Krentzman, assistant professor of social work at the University of Minnesota. “They’re bullied for choosing not to drink.”

But the second you graduate, she said, you become an addict.

Having addiction in college brings stigmas that appear to weigh more heavily on women and, overall, keep students from seeking treatment. All too often, experts say, students struggling with addiction do so in secret, which makes it harder for them to find the community they often need to support their sobriety.

All addiction carries with it some stigma for everyone, said Krentzman, who specializes in addiction. Stigma from addiction grows out of the behaviors that come from the disease of alcoholism, which are indeed “very disagreeable to many,” she said. Addicts, she said, can “act irrationally, hurt friends and family and can be frustrating to be around.”

The stigma comes from attributing the behaviors to the person and not the disease, she said. People fear the label recovery brings with it: bad person, flawed person, broken person.

Stigma can also keep people from getting the help they need, she said.

“Some people feel like by joining recovery, they are admitting that they have a problem and will be labeled with that negative behavior for the rest of their lives,” she said.


Stigma for women in college

Exploring stigma and addiction is not always easy on any campus. It’s especially hard for women. In an AccessU: Addiction survey of more than 700 undergraduate students, conducted in March, women reported feeling stigma about addiction more than men, no matter whether they struggle with the issue or not.

This was especially true among respondents who identified themselves as in recovery or struggling with drug or alcohol use.

Krentzman said she is not surprised by that gender difference.

“Stigma varies across different cultures and ethnic groups, but I think across them all, the stigma of a woman in recovery is much more severe than the stigma of a man,” she said.

According to John Kelly, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, there’s a higher prevalence of addiction in men than there is in women, with a ratio of three to one. But the stigma associated with addiction hits women harder than men overall because of deeply engrained social taboos.

“It’s less socially acceptable for women to be using drugs or drinking, so there’s more of a stigma than for men in recovery,” he said.

Shelby Stahl, a University of Minnesota student who has not personally experienced addiction or recovery, said that she perceives stigma for drug addiction much differently for men than for women in college.

“For women [addicted to drugs], I feel like people either think ‘party girl’ or ‘white trash,’” she said. “For men, I think people think ‘troubled’ or ‘thug.’”

For Dan Anderson, a recovering alcoholic at the University of Minnesota, the stigma for men is different than that for women, but it is still extremely present for men.

“There’s the concept that they should just ‘man up’ in regards to quitting,” Anderson said.


“They aren’t bad people.”

Having entered treatment in 1986, Anderson said he has seen the ways in which stigma surrounding addiction and recovery has changed over the years. The stigma is much better than it once was, he says, but there’s still a “stigma hangover,” he said.

According to Illinois-based advocate, author and addiction researcher William White, stigma can often minimize the effects of recovery groups.

“The stigma of addiction carries forward into recovery and contributes to personal shame, social isolation and discrimination that people in recovery often encounter,” he said.

White is an advocate for Faces & Voices of Recovery, an addiction advocacy organization based in Washington D.C. that gives people in recovery a platform to make their voices heard. Faces & Voices of Recovery helps others struggling with addiction see people from all walks of life in recovery and feel encouraged to join a recovery group themselves.

“We challenge media caricatures of addiction, support a vanguard of recovery advocates and share stories of people in recovery,” White said. “We challenge those who seek to demonize the addicted and support those who seek the creation of recovery friendly communities.”

White said he sees stigma negatively influencing addicts’ willingness to participate in recovery programs, and many people often postpone or deny their need for recovery.

Krentzman, the social work professor, said people can diminish the stigma surrounding addiction and recovery by becoming knowledgeable about what the addiction really is: a disease.

“Ten percent of the population has an alcohol use disorder, and we need to recognize that healthy people just like anyone else are in recovery,” she said. “People can go to open AA meetings and listen to the stories of recovery. That can help people realize that all kinds of people are in recovery—they aren’t bad people.”


Hiding in college

A computer engineering student, who would agree to identify himself in print only as Key because he did not want his real name used, said his struggle with drugs and alcohol began in high school, which is when he was first sent to treatment for his marijuana use. Key said he attended a state university in Minnesota where he sold drugs to pay for his college tuition.

After being charged for possession and sale of illegal drugs, Key, who is now in his fifth year at the University of Minnesota, said he has struggled to leave his criminal charges in the past.

“Who I am now is not reflective of what my criminal records show,” he said.

Key said he has lost job opportunities and apartments because of his record, despite his being sober for nearly seven years and maintaining high grades, he said.  Only one professor at the University knows about Key’s criminal charges, and few close friends know, too, Key said. He only tells people his history if he believes there is no risk in telling them or if he’s known them for a long time, he added.

“Generally, if I tell people my story, people who haven’t done drugs before think less of me,” Key said.

In college, it can be difficult to share stories such as Key’s for many reasons, including the entire social environment, said Harvard University’s John Kelly. That’s because heavy alcohol consumption is perceived as “normal” in college, and it can be hard to distinguish someone with an addiction, he said.

The shame and discrimination of stigma can also differ from college to college depending on its resources for students in recovery, Kelly said. Some colleges have recovery programs and resources, so there might be less discrimination and more acknowledgement that there are colleges students in recovery, he added.

“The stigma will determine to some degree the likelihood of them disclosing they’re in recovery,” he said.

To lessen the stigma surrounding addiction and recovery, Kelly said people need to learn more about the nature of addiction, understand how they affect the brain and get to know people who are in recovery.

“Like any prejudice or stigma we have, the more exposed we are, the more that stigma falls away,” Kelly said. “The reality is we’re all already surrounded by people who have had former problems, we just don’t know it.”